Monday 30 May 2011

From the archive: "X-Men 2"

Some things change, some things stay the same. In X-Men 2, Bryan Singer's sequel to 2000's middling superhero saga, Professor Charles Xavier's surname is still defiantly pronounced with an x and not a z; his sometime nemesis/now ally Magneto's name continues to be (mis)pronounced "mag-neato", rather than the perhaps more European (more correct?) "mag-netto". Xavier (Patrick Stewart) now seems more than ever like a wheelchair-bound Simon Fuller, especially as he's training up a bunch of young mutant superheroes (Anna Paquin's Rogue, Aaron Stanford's Pyro) to act as the S Club Juniors to the old hands who staffed the first film: to continue the S Club metaphor, Famke Janssen's Jean Grey plays Tina, the connoisseur's choice, to Halle Berry's Storm as Rachel, the one we're all supposed to fancy. This time, they've all teamed up to try and stop hawkish, Tommy Franks/Simon Cowell-like U.S. General William Stryker (Brian Cox) from waging a full-scale military assault against the mutants.

Because it draws on years of comic-book mythology, the sequel's plotting sometimes gets as labyrinthine as anything in Singer's The Usual Suspects, and it's very easy to get lost. (I hadn't a clue what a ghost-child and Stryker's disabled son had to do with the finale.) There's a lot to take in here - most characters, like the film itself [which was also marketed as X2 and X-Men United], go under more than one name. Singer and his writers have cut back on the dialogue to compensate: here are lines so gnomic they'd fit very easily into a speech bubble. There's also a nagging sense that characterisation, too, has slowly been pared away: a love triangle set up to take in Jean Grey, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Hugh Jackman's bellbottom-sporting Wolverine turns out to be a piffling little thing. The most enjoyable relationship in the film, in fact, turns out to be the deeply perverse alliance between Magneto and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and that's because the latter effectively stands as this franchise's own Keyser Soze - effects mean she could be any of the characters at any time - while McKellen is on particularly mischievous form, his performance a panoply of nods, winks and naughty smiles, all the stuff not laid down in a script.

The problem with this particular bunch of mutant superheroes is that there are now so many of them, they pretty much have every eventuality covered; what this sequel gains in diversity and spectacle, it loses in threat. Unlike with Spider-Man or the Lord of the Rings movies, one never gets the sense anybody is likely to die; indeed, when one key character does finally perish, business as usual is established so quickly it's almost as though they were never there in the first place. (You half-suspect some kind of resurrection in X3.) While we should be grateful our summer and Christmas event movies are presently in the hands of people who understand and finally love film - rather than, say, ad directors, or the folk who run effects houses - relief that X-Men 2 is at least entertaining for the most part is tempered by slight regret at the fact Singer hasn't been working on anything more personal or interesting these past few years: his latest ends with an American president backing down from war, which places us as firmly in the realm of fantasy as we have perhaps ever been.

(May 2003)

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